Iroquois Towns

The Indian towns were generally but an irregular and confused aggregation of Indian houses, clustered together with little regard to order, and covering from one to ten acres. They were often fortified, and a situation favorable to defense was always chosen–the bank of a lake, the crown of a difficult hill, or a high point of land in the fork of confluent rivers. These defenses were not often constructed with any mathematical regularity, but made to conform to the nature of the ground. 1 Frequently a precipice or river sufficed for a partial defense–and the line or embankment occurred only on one or two sides.

An embankment was constructed of the earth thrown up from a deep ditch encircling the town, and palisades, of twenty to thirty feet in height, planted thereon, in one to four concentric rows, those of each row inclining toward those of the others till they intersected. These palisades were cut by the alternate process of burning and hacking the burnt part with stone hatchets, 2 from trees felled in the same manner, and were often interlaced with flexible branches, to prevent their destruction by fire, a common effort of the enemy. They were lined to the height of a man with heavy sheets of bark; and on the top, where they crossed, was a gallery of timber for the defenders, together with wooden gutters, by which streams of water could be poured on fires kindled by the enemy. Magazines of stones, and rude ladders for mounting the rampart, completed the provision for defense. The forts of the Iroquois were stronger and more elaborate than those of to her Indian nations, and large districts in New York are marked with the remains of their ditches and embankments, some instances of which occur both in Chenango and Madison Counties, and will be more minutely described in connection with the towns in which they are known to exist.

Large quantities of timber were consumed in building these fortifications, and hence clearings of considerable extent were made and opened to their rude cultivation. In that work the squaws were employed, assisted by the children and superannuated warriors; not as a compulsory labor, but assumed by them as a just equivalent for the onerous and continuous labor of the other sex, in providing meats and skins for clothing, by the chase, and in defending their villages against their enemies and keeping intruders off their territories. 3 The implement used for tilling the soil was a bone or wooden hoe, (pemidgeag akwut,) and the chief crops, corn (mondamin), beans, pumpkins, tobacco, sunflowers and hemp. There was no individual ownership of land, but each family had for the time exclusive right to as much as they saw fit to cultivate. The clearing process was a laborious one, and consisted in hacking off branches, piling them together with brushwood around the foot of the standing trunks, and setting fire to the whole.

With the Iroquois the staple article of food was corn, “cooked without salt in a variety of different forms, each,” says Parkman, “more odious than the last.” This, cooked with beans of various colors, was highly esteemed by them, but was more of a dainty than a daily dish. Their bread, which was of indifferent quality, but an article of daily consumption, was made of corn; from which they also made a porridge, called by some Sapsis, by others, Duundare (boiled bread). Venison was a luxury found only at feasts; dog flesh was held in high esteem; and in some of the towns captive bears were fattened for festive occasions. 4

These stationary tribes were far less improvident than the roving Algonquins, and laid up stores of provision against a season of want. Their main stock of corn was buried in caches, or deep holes dug in the earth. In respect to the arts of life, also, they were in advance of the wandering hunters of the North. The women made a species of earthen pot for cooking, but these were supplanted by the copper kettle of the French traders. They wove rush mats with no little skill. They spun twine from the hemp, by the primitive process of rolling it on their thighs; and of this twine they made nets. They extracted oil from fish and from the seeds of the sunflower, the latter, apparently, only for the purposes of the toilet. They pounded their maize in huge mortars of wood, hollowed by alternate burnings and scrapings. 5 To the woman belonged the drudgery of the household, as well as the field, though it may be questioned if the task was as onerous as it is generally supposed to have been. 6 Among the Iroquois there were favorable features in her condition. She had often a considerable influence in the decisions of the councils. To the men, in addition to the duties already enumerated, belonged that of making the implements of war and the chase, pipes, which were often skillfully and elaborately wrought, and canoes. These are of two kinds; “some of entire trees, excavated by fire, axes and adzes,” 7 and others made of bark. Those of the Hurons, and other northern tribes, were made of birch bark; while those of the Iroquois, in the absence of birch, were made of elm, which was greatly inferior, both in lightness and strength.

The dress of both men and women consisted of skins of various kinds, dressed in the well-known Indian manner, and worn in the shape of kilts, or doublets thrown over the shoulders, the men often wearing it only over the left shoulder, so as to leave their right arm free. Formerly these coverings were made of turkey feathers, woven together with a thread of wild hemp; 8 but latterly both these and the skins were superceded by a piece of duffels, 9 which they obtained in trade from the whites. The rich wore a piece of blue, red or black cloth about “two yards” long, fastened around the waist, the lower seam of which in some cases, was decorated with ribbons, wampum or corals. The poor covered themselves with a bear-skin, and even the rich did the same in cold weather, or in its stead, a pelisse of beaver or other fur, with the hair turned inward. They made stockings and shoes of deer-skins or elk-hides which, says Loskiel, were “tanned with the brains of deer,” which made them very soft; and some even wore shoes made of corn husks, of which also they made sacks. The dress which peculiarly distinguished the women, was a petticoat, made of a piece of cloth about two yards long, fastened tight about the hips, and hanging down a little below the knees. This they wore day and night. A longer one would have impeded them in walking through the woods and working in the fields. Their holiday dress was either blue or red and sometimes black, hung all round, frequently from top to bottom, with red, blue and yellow ribbons. “Most women of rank,” says Loskiel, “wear a fine white linen shift with a red collar, reaching from their necks, nearly to the knees. Others wear shifts of printed linen or cotton of various colors, decorated at the breast with a great number of silver buckles, which are also worn by some as ornaments upon the petticoats.” The men also frequently appeared in a white shirt with a red collar, worn over the rest of the clothes. The dress “of the women, according to the Jesuits,” says Parkman, in speaking of the Hurons, “was more modest than that of our most pious ladies of France! The young girls on festal occasions must be excepted from this commendation, as they wore merely a kilt from the waist to the knee, besides the wampum decorations of the breast and arms. Their long black hair, gathered behind the neck, was decorated with disks of native copper, or gay pendants made in France, and now occasionally unearthed in numbers from their graves. The men, in summer, were nearly naked, those of a kindred tribe wholly so, with the sole exception of their moccasins.” 10

History, Iroquois,

Smith, James H. History of Chenango and Madison Counties, New York. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co. 1880.

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  1. The forts attacked by Champlain in 1615 and M. de Tracy in 1666, furnish exceptions to this statement, and the diagram of the former also shows that the inclosed village was built with great regularity. The former was in the form of a hexagon, without bastions, “with strong quadruple palisades of large timber, thirty feet high, interlocked the one with the other, with an interval of not more than a foot between them, with galleries in the form of parapets, defended with double pieces of timber;” and the latter was a triple palisade, twenty feet in height, and flanked by four bastions. Both were provided with the means of extinguishing fires. Water was conducted to the former from a pond with a never-failing supply of water by means of gutters; while in the latter it was kept in bark tanks; Voyages de la Nouv. France par le Sr. de Champlain Paris, 1632. Relation 1665-6. Doc. Hist. of New York.[]
  2. The Indian had no metallic ax capable of felling a tree, prior to 1492.–Schoolcraft.[]
  3. Schoolcraft.[]
  4. A Paper treating of the Natives, their Appearance, Occupation and Food, published in the New York Colonial History, Vol. I., p. 281, states that “their food is poor and gross, for they drink water, having no other beverage; they eat the flesh of all sorts of game that the country supplies, even badgers, dogs, eagles, and similar trash, which Christians in no way regard; these they cook and use uncleansed and undressed. Moreover, all sorts of fish; likewise snakes, frogs, and such like, which they usually cook with the offals and entrails.” Colden confirms this statement with regard to their freedom in eating. He says: “Their men value themselves in having all kinds of food in equal esteem. A Mohawk sachem told me, with a kind of pride, that a man eats everything without distinction, bears, cats, dogs, snakes, frogs, &c., intimating that it is womanish to have any delicacy in the choice of food.–History of the Five Indian Nations.[]
  5. Parkman’s Jesuits.[]
  6. See Schoolcraft’s Notes, where it is stated, in considering the relative duties of the male and female Indian, that those of the latter are not disproportionately great.[]
  7. Colonial History of New York.[]
  8. Loskiel and Colonial History of New York. Verazzani, who explored the coast of North America in 1524, speaks of the natives whom he met in the harbor of New York, as not differing much from those with whom he had intercourse at other points, “being dressed out with the feathers of birds of various colors.”[]
  9. A kind of coarse cloth resembling frieze. “The lower body of this skirt,” says Van der Donck, the Dutch Historian, in describing an Indian belle, “they ornament with great art, and nestle the same with strips which are tastefully decorated with wampum. The wampum with which one of these skirts is ornamented is frequently worth from one to three hundred guilders.”[]
  10. It was customary, says Father Marest, a missionary among the Indians of Illinois and Michigan in 1712, for the women to cover their breasts with a piece of skin. “They are all modestly clothed when they come to church. Then they wrap the body in a large skin, or clothe themselves well in a robe made of many skins sewed together.–Kip’s Jesuits.[]

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